Harvard Law School and the Government Shutdown

“Hey,” Chris boasted to Walt at one point, “I think my grades will be good enough to get into Harvard Law School.”
–Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

In the film version of Krakauer’s book, this line is delivered by a bright-eyed Emile Hirsch in an Atlanta restaurant. The family’s celebrating Chris’ graduation from Emory: they don’t know yet that our protagonist is about to light out for the territories, burn his Social Security card, get deep with nature. For a moment there, he still has a chance to save himself and earn his Harvard J.D.

Chris’ father, Walt (played by William Hurt), hears Chris’ comment and pauses in mid-chew. “That,” he says with all due seriousness, “Is a Big. Deal.”

By the dramatic demands of Into the Wild, Chris’s decision not to attend our school is the ultimate slight to the System. Sure, I could be one of Them, Chris is saying. But I don’t want to be.

I’m not sure about you, but I’m a bit offended. It’s not just that Chris (soon to adopt the nomme de terre Alexander Supertramp) disturbs my notions of lawyerly disestablishmentarianism. It’s that this choice between going to Harvard Law and walking into the wilderness seems, I don’t know, exaggerated. Does Chris think our school is some sort of monolithic Moloch serving The Man? (Who that Man might be is, of course, ill-defined.) Romantic as Supertramp’s transcendentalist meanderings might seem to those of us stuck mastering the niceties of legal citation, one would imagine that more net social good comes out of being a law student than starving alone in the Alaskan taiga.

It was in the midst of such musings, to which 1Ls are so prone, that the recent and not quite resolved government debacle unfolded. It seemed particular apt that, just as our minds ramped up, Washington was shutting down. We embarked on our legal careers while the World Capital of Lawyers (significantly staffed, it should be noted, by alumni of this school), set upon a project of self-shaming beyond even the wildest imaginings of Miley Cyrus. (Ted Cruz — to pursue the analogy — was Miley, and John Boehner was the helpless backup dancers. Obama was the nervous crowd. We were all of us, we expectant Americans, the stunned and twerked-upon Robin Thicke).

Here’s how the story unfolded from the perspective of Wasserstein Hall. Barack Obama, J.D. ’91, fresh off his campaign victory over Mitt Romney, J.D. ’75, found himself unable to thwart the concerted efforts of Ted Cruz, J.D. ’95, et. al., to shut down the government in the name of compromise (the ministrations of Charles Schumer, J.D. ’71, Tim Kaine, J.D. ’83, and Alan Grayson, J.D. ’83 notwithstanding). Some lefties blamed the court of John Roberts, J.D. ’79 — comprised primarily of L.L.B.s/J.D.s ’60-’86 — for helping to create this situation by eroding campaign finance laws and allowing more divisive vitriol on the airwaves. But not even erstwhile professor Elizabeth Warren could muster enough populist pressure to undo the Tea Party chokehold. In the end — no doubt fondly recalling the adrenaline of the waning moments of their open memo assignments — Congress came up with a semi-solution at the deadline. So maybe there’s empirical support for the Supertramp notion that Harvard Law is some kind of finishing school for the imperial elite. And maybe that elite doesn’t always perform at an elite level. But it certainly can’t be doubted that, when one focuses on the upper echelons of the political structure, there’s a certain redundancy of resumé. This distinction obeys no boundaries of party or wing (provided, of course, one doesn’t move too far from the center). One can hardly imagine politicos more distinct than Cruz and Warren. The 2012 election could be described as a drawn-out proof of our institution’s nonpartisan excellence — and I’m sure it has been. We’re in the Thicke of it.

All well and good. But after the dust has settled and we turn from CNN back to CivPro or from Politico to Property, a certain paradox rears its head. The real-world, ramification-having, frequently frustration-inducing escapades of our alumni — the words and deeds of individuals — fade before an academic study of politics and policy that is often pointedly depersonalized. In our classrooms, it’s rules, institutions and systems that do the work, evolve, self-correct. The Law does this, it says that. The micro becomes macro. Abstraction pervades. Social actors tend to recede to the background, except for the odd wink and nod about Scalia’s latest zinger or Posner’s rhetorical poise.

Such are the demands of legal education, I suppose. Doctrine can’t simply be a review of particulars. But the net effect of this tension, it seems, is an attitude that’s at once cynical and sanguine. Change is evident in retrospect, but the discrete individuals and actions that pushed it forward are eclipsed. In its worst guise, this worldview suggests that the status quo is too big to reimagine or to even seriously tinker with. The Law moves slowly. Society’s kind of stuck where it is. But the individual — the Harvard Law graduate — is unlimited in her possibilities.

These then, are two ways in which political life is often — though by no means always — imagined in law school. The first sees politics as a field of personal and institutional accomplishment. The second sees politics as abstract rationality. Both perspectives are useful. Both are incomplete.

We’re not stuck with this distinction. Much of what we do here flies in the face of such passivity. Career and social change (or even minimal political functionality) need not be incompatible, nor we do have to make Supertramp’s false choice of social escape or social surrender. Maybe it’s possible to allow one perspective to infect the other, and vice versa. We might consider the actions of Harvard Law graduates (and of ourselves, and of our favorite jurists) as always implicated in the bigger questions that we care about — and to consider the bigger questions as never more than a collection of individual deeds.

This sounds banal. But the task of balancing Harvard Law’s role as a tremendously influential social actor with its mission to study just such actors and influences is a complicated one. It requires a special sort of mental twerking to be an insider with an outsider’s perspective. And that, you could say, is what studying law at Harvard should be all about.

Your move, Supertramp.